Stephen Spillman for the Rivard Report
In a highly anticipated vote Wednesday, the Texas State Board of Education took the first step to create long-awaited official state standards for a course about Mexican-American history and culture, but left some educators and board members dissatisfied with the course’s title.
The board voted 9-4 to change the course’s name to Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent, instead of calling it Mexican-American Studies.
For four years, advocates had pushed for state standards, saying the SBOE’s stamp of approval and state guidelines would make it easier for schools throughout the state to start offering a course focused on Mexican-American history and culture. Eighty Texas schools offer such a course, with most offered at the college or university level, according to data from the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies Tejas Foco Committee on Mexican American Studies in Pre-K-12 Education. In San Antonio, the majority of MAS courses are offered at one of the Alamo Colleges.
Shortly before the board was to vote to establish standards, board member David Bradley (R-Beaumont) proposed the name change.
“I am not an Irish-American, I am not a German-American, I am not a French-American,” he told the board. “My wife is Asian and Polynesian. She is an American. I find hyphenated Americanism to be divisive.”
Bradley has advocated approving standards for an overarching ethnic studies course rather than a class focusing only on Mexican-American studies. He said singling out one ethnic group could appear to be excluding other races and ethnicities.
Board member Marisa Perez-Diaz, a Democrat whose district includes part of Bexar County, voted against the name change. She said that calling the course Ethnic Studies excluded Mexican-American students from learning about their specific culture and history in schools.
Perez-Diaz said specifically approving a Mexican-American studies course would be inclusive and could open the door to courses for other ethnicities.
“As someone who identifies as Mexican-American, your experience is unlike my experience … I am not asking you to prescribe to anything that separates somebody from being American,” she said to Bradley. “I am asking you to be inclusive.”
After this exchange, the board approved the name change, and then went on to approve the first step in the formation of state standards for the course.
Monica Martinez, the Texas Education Agency’s associate commissioner of standards and programs, said the agency will take the structure of a MAS course taught in the Houston Independent School District and develop state standards for secondary schools from it. At the board’s next meeting in June, it will vote to accept the agency’s submitted standards and then receive public feedback on them.
SBOE President Donna Bahorich said the name of the approved course could undergo another change at that point as a result of the feedback. Other elements not included in the HISD course, like a requirement for local history, could also be added. Final approval for the course’s standards could come in September.
The approval of standards would not require any school to start offering the course. It would still be an optional class.
Prior to the vote, more than 35 individuals spoke in favor of establishing state standards for a Mexican-American studies course. Many of the speakers came from San Antonio, including representatives from the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, students from KIPP Camino Academy, and teachers from various institutions of higher education.
People spoke about the need for state standards to create preparation programs for teachers of such a course and about the need to recognize the prominent cultures of Texas.
Board member Ruben Cortez Jr. (D-Brownsville) said approving state standards would recognize the work so many people had put in for years to educate students about their own heritage.
“It makes it easier for teachers to teach,” he said. “We’ve been doing this at a grassroots level.”
Prior to Wednesday’s vote, the board had yet to take action in creating curriculum, standards, or resources for Mexican-American studies courses. Since 2014, when the SBOE first asked for textbook submissions for the courses, two books have been submitted and subsequently rejected.
Critics described the first book, Mexican American Heritage, as “racially offensive,” and a panel of educators found the book to contain more than 140 errors.
“Chicanos, on the other hand, adopted a revolutionary narrative that opposed Western civilization and wanted to destroy this society,” read a sentence from the book that was said to be insulting to Hispanics.
In 2016, the SBOE voted unanimously to exclude the book from the state-approved list of instructional materials.
One year later, the SBOE rejected a second book, The Mexican American Studies Toolkit, because it also contained factual errors. A state review panel discovered more than 50 errors in the initial draft.
“The book requires substantial revisions in terms of its structure, pedagogical components, lack of citations, interdisciplinary and social studies content, and multiple perspectives,” the panel wrote.
A number of those who traveled to Austin for the vote Wednesday brought letters of support from their San Antonio school districts. San Antonio and Harlandale ISDs both submitted letters supporting the creation of state standards.
“Through this letter of support, our sincere hope is that Texas History courses would become more inclusive and reflect the history of our diverse student populations,” read a letter from SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez and Board President Patti Radle. “The current curriculum should be more inclusive of Latinos.”